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Reading, Listening, and Watching

Posted by tinako on June 21, 2010

I read a bunch of stuff for my Food Psychology class today, and then watched the fourth lecture.  This Time article is an amusing account of a journalist fasting for two days.

I’m enjoying Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food, though I find things to disagree with.  For instance, a major point he tries to make is that most of what you find in the supermarket is not food but what he calls edible foodlike substances.  This is amusing enough and makes for a succinct tagline (“Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”), but I’m not sure it’s worth arguing about a definition of food – let’s stick to arguing about how much of certain types we should eat – more, less, or none?  We can make exactly the same point (stop eating processed food) without arguing over semantics.  Just make it “Eat whole food. etc.”  He has written elsewhere that redefining food will make it easier to kick junk “food” off of food stamps and out of schools and remove their sales-tax exempt status.  IMHO, those are policy decisions that we can decide to make without having to convince Webster’s dictionary to redefine a common word.  Can you imagine processed food manufacturers sitting still while their product is defined as non-food?  But everyone already knows it’s junk food; have the government officially classify “junk food” and then implement those changes.

And do we need to argue about whether shoving food in our mouths while we watch TV is “eating” or “feeding”?  Can we just say that if the food is making it down your throat, you’re eating, and maybe there are better and worse ways to accomplish it for mental and social health?  Maybe I will agree with him when I have finished the book.

Michael Pollan

This book is a response to questions Pollan received from readers of his earlier book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  People wanted to know what they should eat, and what he eats.  In the introduction Pollan wonders why people would want a journalist to tell them what to eat.  (I wonder the same thing as I write my blog.)  He answers his own question that people are confused about what to eat because the topic has been taken away from our mothers and handed over to scientists, who have made it very confusing.  He cites a study from the early twentieth century in which doctors and medical workers stationed overseas noticed that as people in that area abandoned their traditional diet for a Western diet, predictable disease patterns followed, but even more interesting, the original diet was incredibly varied from place to place.  Some populations thrived on “high fat, some on low fat, some on high carb, all meat, or all plant; indeed there have been traditional diets based on just about any kind of whole food you can imagine.”  This suggests that humans can be healthy on a wide variety of diets, but the Western diet is not one of them.  [p.11]  Interesting.

I want to say, I really like Michael Pollan when he stays out of the topic of meat.  He has a lot of smart and insightful things to say.  I’ve read The Botany of Desire and several pieces he’s written for the NY Times, such as this open letter to the incoming President Obama, “Farmer in Chief.”  This article, “Unhappy Meals,” seems to be a summary of In Defense of Food. But whenever he gets on the topic of animals, he has a brain freeze.  I didn’t read The Omnivore’s Dilemma because I didn’t want to put myself through reading about the calf he buys and then eventually has slaughtered.  I understand that is a small part of the book, and I should probably give it a read, though at this point I think I’ve heard most of what he has to say on the topic of where our food comes from through other media.  But it’s not just that I disagree with him on animals, it’s that he doesn’t make logical sense.  This review from the Atlantic Monthly, “Hard to Swallow,” does a great job of skewering T.O.D. (and here’s my take on it), but I’ve seen Pollan fall apart over meat in other essays as well.  He’s OK when he just touches on meat – he usually recommends reducing our consumption and getting animals out of intensive confinement, but when he goes in depth, he is just pumping out excuses.

John Cawley

I also enjoyed listening to this podcast from the Rudd Center, an interview of John H. Cawley, PhD, an economist at Cornell who studies food economics full time.  He had some very interesting observations, beginning with a discussion about research he is doing into deceptively advertised weight loss products.  He says there is no law saying weight loss products, such as pills, have to work or even be safe, and they can make any claims in their ads that they wish.  He was really interesting.

I think it’s wonderful that this Rudd Center series of interviews on obesity includes lawyers, economists, nutritionists, epidemiologists, psychologists, journalists – you get such a diverse view of the issues.

You know, all this reading and watching about obesity and junk food makes me crave foods I normally do not want, such as chips.  But I am able to laugh at myself, and have not rushed off to the store for any Flaming Hot Cheetohs yet.

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